Saturday, June 18, 2011

The reality of global climate change

Are you bored yet with articles about global warming? After all, we've been talking about it for years, and half the country has been moving steadily to a denialist position.

Heck, cap-and-trade used to be the Republican position - as late, in fact, as John McCain's 2008 presidential bid - in opposition to the more effective and rational idea of a carbon tax. Now, only one Republican running for president (Jon Huntsman) even admits that global warming is anything but a hoax, and even he no longer calls for us to do anything about it.

Now the conservative position of cap-and-trade is called "cap-and-tax" by the increasingly fanatic GOP (just as the Republican plan on health care reform is now dubbed "Obamacare"). As the Democrats have moved to the right, the Republicans have moved even further to the right, leaving our nation more polarized than ever.

And what about the scientific consensus? That gets stronger every year. Climatologists - the experts when it comes to this particular scientific issue - are overwhelmingly in agreement that climate change is real, that it's caused by human beings (notably by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere), and that it's likely to cause immense problems for human beings and other life on this planet.

But the American public seems to be moving in the exact opposite direction - not because of any particular knowledge or expertise, and certainly not because of any evidence. No, it's all just a gut feeling. Even obviously intelligent people like my anonymous commenter here, too smart to dismiss the scientific consensus entirely, are convinced it's all been "blown out of proportion."

Well, I hope that's true. But on what does he base that? As far as I can tell,... nothing, really. Just the "he said/she said" of climatologists on one side and political pundits and talk show hosts on the other. Obviously, if there's that much disagreement, this can't be anything really serious, right?

So this recent article in Newsweek really struck me:

Joplin, Mo., was prepared. The tornado warning system gave residents 24 minutes’ notice that a twister was bearing down on them. Doctors and nurses at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, who had practiced tornado drills for years, moved fast, getting patients away from windows, closing blinds, and activating emergency generators. And yet more than 130 people died in Joplin, including four people at St. John’s, where the tornado sucked up the roof and left the building in ruins, like much of the shattered city.

Even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence of the last year. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 tornadoes have ripped across the heartland, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage. The Midwest suffered the wettest April in 116 years, forcing the Mississippi to flood thousands of square miles, even as drought-plagued Texas suffered the driest month in a century. Worldwide, the litany of weather’s extremes has reached biblical proportions. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed an estimated 15,000 people. Floods in Australia and Pakistan killed 2,000 and left large swaths of each country under water. A months-long drought in China has devastated millions of acres of farmland. And the temperature keeps rising: 2010 was the hottest year on earth since weather records began.

From these and other extreme-weather events, one lesson is sinking in with terrifying certainty. The stable climate of the last 12,000 years is gone. Which means you haven’t seen anything yet. And we are not prepared.

For what has become such a political football, this is a pretty strong article, don't you think? Of course, I don't really know. Maybe it was paired with a denialist column? But there's no sign of that on the web page.

But what will people like my anonymous commenter think? Here's what he said previously:
Recently I got into a conversation with some teenagers who were convinced that if we did not do 'something' (very vague on what that something should be though and certainly not something that should change their own personal life style at all) then we would all face a 'Day after tomorrow' scenario soon.

And this is the problem as I see it. Virtually every natural disaster is put down to 'climate change' from Katrina (which was a humans being in the wrong place and poor engineering problem) to droughts being declared in one of the wettest places in the world (because the water companies allow so much leakage from their pipes problem).

The thing is, I wouldn't necessarily listen to a random bunch of teenagers, either - or anyone else, for that matter. And I wouldn't automatically believe a published article. But I would listen to the scientific consensus, especially when pretty much every year sets new global temperature records and when their forecasts of increasing and increasingly severe weather events seem to be taking place before our eyes.

No, you can't say that any particular storm, drought, or flood was caused by global warming. Some storms will happen anyway. Global warming predicts that we'll see an increasing number of such events and/or events of increasing severity, and that's exactly what we're seeing. It's not proof, of course, but science isn't about proof. And for Jeebus sake, why take that risk?

Why, after all, would you just assume that things won't be as bad as scientists say? You don't know that. You can't know that. Maybe they'll be even worse. A runaway climate change disaster hasn't happened while human beings have been around (with the possible exception of the last ice age), because otherwise we might not be here. And that's no coincidence, because there's nothing natural about this one.

But given even a chance of utter disaster, why take that risk? Why just shrug it off? Why wouldn't we listen to the experts in a clearly scientific matter like this? The scientific consensus may indeed be wrong, but that's sure as hell not the smart bet!

Here's an article in Scientific American about a current weather event:
One of the driest spring seasons on record in northern Europe has sucked soils dry and sharply reduced river levels to the point that governments are starting to fear crop losses and France, in particular, is bracing for blackouts as its river-cooled nuclear power plants may be forced to shut down.

French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire warned this week that the warmest and driest spring in half a century could slash wheat yields and might even push up world prices despite the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's predicting a bumper global crop due to greater plantings.

Was that caused by global warming? Who knows? No one can say, not for sure. You just can't claim that any particular weather event was caused by increasing global temperatures. But this sort of thing is consistent with what scientists have forecast. Aren't we smart enough to understand something like that? It doesn't seem so difficult to me.

Apparently, scientists and our more capable government leaders - those who don't choose their gut feelings over the scientific consensus - are beginning to give up on humanity being smart enough to do the right thing. Now, it seems they're beginning to look at emergency measures.

From The Guardian:
Lighter-coloured crops, aerosols in the stratosphere and iron filings in the ocean are among the measures being considered by leading scientists for "geo-engineering" the Earth's climate, leaked documents from the UN climate science body show.

In a move that suggests the UN and rich countries are despairing of reaching agreement by consensus at global climate talks, the US, British and other western scientists will outline a series of ideas to manipulate the world's climate to reduce carbon emissions. But they accept that even though the ideas could theoretically work, they might equally have unintended and even irreversible consequences.

This is crazy. No one really wants to experiment with geo-engineering, especially since we can't know what might happen. It's insane to risk our only planet like this. But it might be our only choice, if we're just too stupid to change our ways.

Well, it's already too late to prevent dramatic global warming. We've dithered too long already. And it's only going to get worse the longer we delay. The Earth's atmosphere, the Earth's climate, can't be turned around on a dime. Unfortunately, this is a long-term problem, the kind we humans are the worst at confronting.

But when it becomes a true emergency, it will definitely be too late. It will certainly be too late for doing the right thing. At that point, we may be left with an unproven and very dangerous geo-engineering experiment, where the cure might end up worse than the disease.

All because we're just too dumb, just too short-sighted, just too willing to believe what we want to believe. I really hope the scientific consensus is wrong. I hope the forecasts are wrong - and not in the wrong direction, either. But hope is a piss-poor response to something like this. We could be doing something about it. And even if the scientific consensus were wrong, we'd end up with cleaner, more efficient energy sources. Big problem, huh?

So why aren't we that smart?

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